My FitBit read 7.83 miles when I felt the cramp. As the pain shot through my left calf, I was less than 24 hours removed from treatment for alcoholism. I’d spent 16 weeks training for the Milwaukee Marathon. Every weekend, I’d grind out my long run on Sunday. It was usually around mile 3 that I’d feel the effects of my hangover subside. By the time I finished off my 15 or however many miles, I’d have convinced myself I sweat out all the toxins. That this week would be different. I’d stay clean this time. This time, I meant it. It would stick. Before lunch the next day, I’d be either drunk or well on my way, the start of another week of drinking my way through the workday, somehow hiding my inebriation from my wife every night, and lying awake through the night, suffering night sweats and wishing I could simply vanish. You can imagine the hellish cycle that repeated week after week, month after month.
Ready to do the work
It was Friday, March 22, 2019, that I cracked up, hitched an ambulance ride to the ER, and woke up in a fog the next morning. I told my wife I couldn’t go back to a job that was slowly killing me, and she agreed. With that pact in place, I was ready to do the work. The following Monday, I checked into rehab, where I received a dual diagnosis: alcohol addiction and depression/anxiety. It came as relief to learn that if I treated my illness, the depression and anxiety that I’d battled some 25 years, since my early teen years, I could better manage the symptom: alcoholism. In treatment, I got on the right meds. I developed tools, many of which I still use daily in recovery. I gleefully learned about the science of addiction (I *heart* science).
Shifting the baseline
One concept I found particularly informative was the impact consistent substance abuse has on our brain’s ability to produce feel-good chemicals. We as runners are all too familiar with endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, right? Well, when you bombard your brain with alcohol, it cranks out less and less of those good chemicals – making it harder to achieve the same buzz you had before. The idea of tolerance probably isn’t a new one to you. But look at the other end of the spectrum. As your highs become lower, so do your lows, until eventually your high is basically where your baseline used to be. Your baseline, meanwhile, becomes where your low used to be.
The fantastic news is that incrementally, you can shift that “S” curve back up. In fact, if you’ve always been a drinker, your brain is likely capable of a high you haven’t experienced in years. Strip away the interference substances cause and, voila! Uncharted territory.
I didn’t choose to be an alcoholic
While I love me some science, the most powerful revelation I made in treatment was that I didn’t choose to be an alcoholic. My brain is simply wired for it. I learned and accepted that being an alcoholic doesn’t make me a bad person. It simply puts me in a massive population of people who are suffering in silence because they’re afraid of the stigma associated with admitting you need help.
I’m sure that’s a familiar struggle for the Still I Run crowd—a crowd for which I’m eternally grateful because it’s going to take a village… well, more like a bustling metropolis … to take a sledgehammer to the stigma that’s holding back millions from living their best lives.
While in treatment, I kept up my training as best as I could. I’d spring out of bed and get an escort to the 10-by-10 closet of a gym and bang out my miles on the rickety treadmill. During group meditation sessions, it was all I could do to redirect my thoughts, my visualizations of the marathon, back to the present moment.
I couldn’t possibly have a drinking problem
I was discharged mid-morning Friday, April 5, and my wife picked me up and drove me straight to an AA meeting. When I got home, I was engulfed by our then-5-year-old twin daughters. That’s right. I have an amazing family – a relentlessly supportive, beautiful, brilliant wife, and two little girls who … let’s just say they’re their mother’s daughters. I’m also a marathoner. I was a celebrated journalist. You could find my family at church each Sunday morning. I couldn’t possibly have a drinking problem, right? That’s the thing about addiction. It doesn’t discriminate. In fact, that’s a major reason I began my advocacy, as an author, a public speaker, and podcaster. I almost didn’t go forward with it. I thought my story wasn’t as interesting as others’. It didn’t have the Hollywood rock bottom. I didn’t get clean and then run across the Sahara like Charlie Engel did. Who would want to hear my story? How about the millions of people who are suffering in silence and haven’t (yet) lost their jobs, their families and their house, or caused a fatal car crash? So whether we’re talking about someone who doesn’t think they have a big enough problem (no problem is too small), or someone who’s at the end of their rope because their loved one won’t accept help, there’s an audience of desperate souls that could benefit from my experience. My story, sadly, is accessible. It’s far too common.
Let’s take a step back, yes?
Like I mentioned up top, the day after I got out of treatment, Saturday, April 6, I ran the Milwaukee Marathon. And with 18.37 miles to go, a lightning bolt of pain ripping through my left calf, I hit the medical tent. Two youngsters set me up with a couple of electrolyte wafers and a calf massage, along with instructions on how to manage the pain for the next, oh, 2½ hours or so. About half a mile down the road, the pain came roaring back, just as intense as before I hit the tent. I considered quitting. It wasn’t a fleeting thought, either. For the next few miles, I had to slam the door on persistent thoughts of giving up. Each time, though, I considered everything I’d gone through, all I’d survived in order to be running that morning.
Reaching into the toolkit
I used every tool I’d found and sharpened in treatment. I meditated. When my earbuds went on the fritz just before the half-marathon turnaround, I prayed for the strength to not punk out and follow the half-marathoners. God granted me the strength to forge on. The second half of the marathon is riddled with out-and-back stretches. Usually I’d dread those, considering that you’d see the same scenery twice, right? I’m sure you’re feeling me. But that morning, I fed off the energy of the elites who blew by me in the opposite direction, on the other side of the cones. I rooted them on and gave high-fives (Ugh. Remember high-fives?). What was even more powerful was blowing by the slower runners on the way back, and encouraging them. When I saw my wife, I screamed, “I love you, babe!” It took every fiber of my being to exude strength. The moment I’d passed her, I began sobbing. She’d been rooting for me to get clean for so long. I’d do everything in my power to not let her down again.
Spotting an Old “Friend”
As we approached downtown Milwaukee, and throughout the last few miles of the race, I saw breweries, bars and taverns. My response surprised me. I felt liberated. I felt empowered. I felt determined. To be clear, my calf never stopped nagging me. And it was abundantly clear in those last few miles, with my right hip and knee barking at me louder and louder, that compensation was taking its toll. The all-too familiar voice But I forged on, and as I turned left onto Juneau Avenue and saw there was just a half-mile to go, against all odds and explanations, I managed to pick up the pace. As I approached the bridge that spans the Milwaukee River, I saw an old haunt to my left, Harp Irish Pub, and with a quarter of a mile to go, the all-too-familiar voice crept in: “You should slow down.” “You might as well just walk.” “You’re never going to stay sober.” “It’s too hard.” “You’re not good enough.” “You’re not strong enough.” “Why don’t you just give up?” Something snapped in me, and instead of pumping the brakes, I buried the accelerator.
The Finish Line
As I neared the chute, I fed off the screams of encouragement from the crowds lining the fence like never before. I kept the pedal down all the way through the timing pads, and my knees felt like they were going to buckle when I finally slowed down, my vision blurring and sweat stinging in my eyes. I rubbed them, and as things came into focus, I saw the young man who’d massaged my calf, holding the medal he’d drape around my neck. I’ll never forget his reaction when he recognized me: “Dude! I didn’t think you’d make it!”
Honestly, my man, I had my doubts, too. I’d set a PR of 3 hours, 55 minutes. In fact, I’d taken 12 minutes off my previous best.
I found my family, hugged them all and sobbed into shoulders, gripping them tight. As I hugged my father, I remember saying, “Look what I can still do, dad.” We celebrated with burgers as big as our faces, and that afternoon, with ice packs on my rickety knees, I began writing my memoir, which is aptly titled 40,000 Steps. It’s set up with parallel narratives: my recovery, my marathon, and how they’re not all that dissimilar. In late-summer 2019, I put my story out there on social media. Running, therapy, medication, meditation … they’re all tenets of my recovery program. But the biggest prong for me is the accountability that comes with sharing my story, and the immense pride I feel when someone reaches out and confides in me, or asks for help.
You can help
If you know someone who needs a hand, please point them my way. Google (the name of your city) + substance abuse evaluation. Get them to a meeting. They don’t have to take 40,000 Steps like I did. The key is that they simply take the first.
Christopher Heimerman is the founder of 40,000 Steps, L3C, and the host of 40,000 Steps Radio. He also hosts a daily IGTV video at @40000__steps, where he regularly interviews guests. Christopher the author of the unpublished memoir 40,000 Steps. He’s run five marathons and is eternally chasing his wife, Kayla, who’s run eight. They’ve both signed up for their first 50K this fall. They live in DeKalb, Illinois, with their 7-year-old twins, Anna and Elise. Learn more about his advocacy at 40000steps.wordpress.com.